Clinical depression is one of the most common mental illnesses, a disabling condition that keeps people trapped in feelings of hopelessness and despair. So why do depressed people actually make better decisions than their healthy counterparts?
This is the first study that's ever shown a positive benefit of major depressive disorder. Previous research into how depression affects people's ability to perform mental tasks had shown that depressed people tended to be more easily distracted by their own problems, and depressed people had to be asked to actively avoid thinking about their problems in order to perform better.
And yet this study shows that when it comes to decision-making, far from being overwhelmed by their own concerns, people with depression consistently demonstrate more systematic and analytic thinking than those without mental health problems. The experiment involved 54 test subjects - 15 with major depressive disorder, 12 recovering from the condition, and 27 without mental health issues. Each was asked to see 40 applicants for a secretary position, and then offer the job to the best candidate.
The experiment was designed to have a correct answer based on the criteria that the test subjects were given - some choices were meant to be objectively better than others, making it possible to rank how well the test subjects did. The results were striking - those still struggling with depression consistently chose significantly better candidates than their healthy and recovering peers.
Intriguingly, those with depression spent an average of five extra minutes deliberating before coming to a decision, which the researchers attribute to the depressed subjects setting higher standards for successful applicants than the other participants in the study. The test subjects with depression were not consciously aware that they were trying harder to make the right decision - they simply took as long as they felt they needed to come to the right decision.
All this supports the theory that people with major depressive disorder develop heightened decision-making abilities as a way to compensate for a perceived loss of control over their environment. Because the disease itself can leave people feeling helpless, being extra careful when it comes time to make even small decisions - like, say, a simulated hiring decision in a psych experiment - can give depressed people a sense of control that they otherwise lack.
The researchers pointed out that the effect is only seen in those still suffering from depression, indicating that the effect dissipates as people start to recover:
"We found effects for participants still reporting clinical levels of depression but not for those participants who - although still reporting higher levels of depression than healthy individuals - showed indication of recovery. This suggests that - at least in sequential choice - only an acute and severe state of depression leads to changes in strategic behavior."